Boutique Bubblings

The hills across the road from Steve Chapin’s Temecula vineyards — situated out past the tourist-friendly wineries and a short hop from Lake Skinner — are fallow now. Chaparral grows where vines once stood — 660 acres of Chardonnay that used to be under contract to Callaway, the former giant of the valley. Someday, says Chapin, “There’s going to be a project called Seven Oaks — 125 homes on one-acre estates, and the rest going back into vineyards. There’s a plan for a winery, too. The valley is going to change a lot.”

Change seems to be something of the norm for Temecula of late. “You drive along Rancho California Road, and you can see orange groves coming out left and right,” observes Chapin. People continuing the fight against Pierce’s disease, depriving the Pierce’s-bearing glassy-winged sharpshooter of its winter home amid the citrus. Huge new projects like the South Coast Winery and Resort. And here and there, at places like Palumbo Family Winery, the bubblings of a boutique-winery culture, a culture Chapin hopes to foment (ferment?). “I feel that the boutique wineries are going to be what puts Temecula on the map,” says Chapin, owner of Chapin Family Vineyards. “There’s going to be somebody who really goes over the top and does everything right.”

Chapin stops short of saying that he’s going to be that somebody — his four and a half acres of vines went in just six years ago, and he’s selling only his first release, an ’04 Cabernet. But he’s happy to say that he wouldn’t mind someday “being recognized for making really excellent wines — velvety, luxurious type of wines. I’m pretty happy with what I’m producing right now, but I’ll always try to improve. I read a lot about the great vineyards of the world, just to stay motivated. I read that book, The Great Wines of America by Paul Lukacs. As much as he had about the farming methodologies up in Napa and Sonoma — I think we do a very good job of matching them as far as the way they farm vines.”

“We” refers to Chapin and his consultants, local winemaking consultant Enrique Ferro and international viticultural consultant Marco Cavalieri. “I bought this land in ’87 as an investment property,” recalls Chapin. But after a globetrotting career in medical diagnostics got him introduced to the joys of wine, “I said, ‘If I ever have the time, I think I’d like to grow vines and make wine.’ After 25 years, I said, ‘It’s time. I don’t want to do it when I’m so old I can’t do it.’ Me and about ten other guys planted the vines — Cabernet, Syrah, Petite Verdot, and Montepulciano.” But come time for the first harvest, “I found out that investing in consultants is well worth the money. Trial and error is not the way to go.” (A winemaking friend recommended Ferro, and Ferro found Cavalieri in Argentina.) That first Cabernet “probably wasn’t that great as a standalone varietal,” grants Chapin — but a little Cabernet Franc, brought in on Ferro’s suggestion, did wonders.

“I think Enrique is really critical,” says Chapin. “He’s not afraid to tell you…” Case in point: the ’05 harvest was deemed unacceptable and sold off. “It wasn’t very good quality,” says Ferro. “Very high yields, bunches were huge — everything against the quality. So he sold it to the neighbors.” Continues Chapin, “I read about an individual who didn’t put his name on a wine until ten years out. He sold grapes and he made wine, but you didn’t know it was his until he was satisfied. You’re always looking for ways to improve; you’re not hesitant to put in that extra labor.”

And there’s plenty of extra labor. “I estimate we drop 40–50 percent of our crop,” says Chapin. “We prune to about two or three bunches per node. And Marco really wants us to control the canopy — we pull leaves to get about 50 percent sun on the grapes, and we keep it to about nine square feet of foliage per vine to keep down the vegetative character.”

“The vineyard is still young,” comments Ferro. “With time, it will give us much better quality grapes. Our operation is to optimize the quality that is already there. It’s working with what the place can give you; not forcing nature. In Napa, if you don’t harvest over 25 Brix, you’re going to have very tough tannins. They have to go higher,” with the attendant rise in alcohol and overall body. “Here, that’s not a question. In our case, it’s at about 24, 25 Brix that we achieve soft, polymerized tannins. We’re not going to have those monster Cabernets.”

Eventually, the house on the property, the one with the 2000-square-foot wraparound porch, may be converted to a tasting room. But for now, it’s a rental, helping to finance the fledgling winemaking operation in a nearby outbuilding. There, Chapin tends the wines with a chemist’s precision, and under Ferro’s careful guidance. “We use a destemmer, but not the crusher,” says Chapin. “Instead, we do whole-berry maceration for more fruit character. Then we ferment in open bins. And I keep the barrels really topped up.”

When I visit, the two are discussing blends for the ’06 Cabernet. One is backed by 15 percent Zinfandel and 10 percent Merlot, the other, by 22.5 percent Merlot and 2.5 percent Cabernet Franc. The former is closer to the ’04 in style — leaner, earthier. But the large dose of Merlot in the latter gives a bit of the fleshy/berry character that, as Ferro puts it, “people are always looking for.” Chapin has five more blends put together for Ferro in medicine bottles, their labels bearing varietal percentages instead of drug dosages. Before he leaves, Ferro says he likes the blend that incorporates 10 percent Zinfandel, 10 percent Cabernet Franc, and 5 percent Merlot. “As soon as we get the blend set,” explains Chapin, “the wine will go back into barrel for three or four weeks. Then, if it looks okay, we’ll bottle it.”

And then Chapin will get busy selling it. He’s had some favorable reception so far: “I live in Carlsbad, and there are a lot of wine shops in town. The Wine Spot loved it. Kathy Bankerd at Carlsbad Wine Merchants put it into their wine club. North County Wine Company has it. And I’m on the list at the Monterey Bay Cannery and the Lost Artichoke. One gentleman said, ‘I really like the direction you’re going in.’ He didn’t say it was a top-end wine, but he said, ‘It’s good news to taste a wine out of Temecula that I enjoy.’ I always get this reaction — ‘Temecula?’ — like the question mark is riding over my head. But they seem to be very pleased with it.”

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